Revisiting the Goodness of the Good News
June 8, 2023
Christian Purpose and Meaning in Late-Stage Capitalism
July 6, 2023

Liberating Arab Evangelicalism from Patriarchy through Inclusive Community

By Caleb Hutcherson

Patriarchy is a way of organizing social relationships that privileges the authority of men over women. And patriarchal social patterns permeate Arabic-speaking evangelicalism. But there are also remarkable resources within Arab evangelicalism that can liberate it.

Some research I did several years ago with theology students at ABTS generated several significant themes that help to explain an Arab evangelical perspective of practical theology. But one striking observation in that project was the difference between how men and women approached and understood the overarching goal for theological reflection. I am convinced this difference actually points to a key for transforming patriarchal social patterns that end up abusing and oppressing people.

Before I share about that difference, though, I imagine you may be responding in one of two ways to the phrase “practical theology.” Perhaps you are thinking, “Ha! Now that’s an oxymoron.” Or you may be thinking, “But isn’t all theology supposed to be practical?” Either way, what I mean when I talk about practical theology is that it is, as Bonnie Miller-McLemore defines it, “a way of doing theology concerned with the embodiment of religious belief in the day-to-day life of individuals and communities.” This way of doing theology has deeply influenced the design of the BTh and MRel programs at ABTS. As a result, these programs guide students in ways of thinking theologically that aim for social transformation.

Now, about that difference. In my research, the women participants showed far more liberative tendencies in their practical theological thinking, whereas the men tended to use theological thinking to consolidate their authority to regulate church and society. In other words, Arab women participants’ theological thinking uniquely confronted and sought to transform the pervading patriarchal social patterns in church and society in a way that the participating men’s ways of doing theology simply did not.

For example, one woman named Aicha (pseudonym) described how using the pattern of theological reflection she learned at ABTS leads to transforming collectivist culture through more equal relationships:

Aicha: (…) to transform this collectivist culture that we have — and it is a beautiful concept. As a concept, collectivist culture is wonderful. But how much better it would be when we cover it with Christ’s redemption. Christ redeemed this society. How do we do this redemption? When we are one body following the head. And all the members are important. There is no hand more important than a foot. All of them are important. (Loc. 214)

Rather than merely developing personal autonomy, the practice of reflecting theologically became for her a way to respectfully rebalance agency in community. In Aicha’s account, the outcome of theological reflection concerns building the community, but in a way that respects all individuals in the community.

Often, the women in my research expressed this transformation with reference to experiences of severe restriction and oppression by their communities, as did a female ABTS student named Miriam (pseudonym):

Miriam: (…) the ones who had freedom in Christ were my parents, who had the ability to make decisions for me and the responsibility for me. I was to live my whole life as a restricted person. But in Christ I knew that I could think; I was a person; I had free will. (…) Theological reflection showed me that I am a child [of God]. It is my right to speak, even in the imperative tense. It is my right to be angry. It is my right to laugh. It is my right to do everything! I have the freedom, all the freedom in Christ. (Loc. 212, Egyptian woman)

Like Miriam, other women in my research framed this transformation – from dependence on others’ thinking into autonomous thinkers – as a positive outcome of practicing theological reflection.

Across my data, the overarching goal of social transformation differed based on gender: men’s accounts characteristically called for maintaining and transmitting tradition in ways that replicated patriarchal social patterns, rather than criticizing and transforming it. On the other hand, women’s accounts explicitly emphasized liberation and interpretive autonomy as an outcome of their theological reflections.

What a gift these women’s theological perspectives could be for Arab churches and civil society!

I think this difference between men’s and women’s theological reflections highlights why it is so vitally important for the church to live up to its calling to be a radically inclusive community, one that includes women at every level of leadership.

In his book Faith in the Face of Empire, Palestinian theologian Mitri Raheb articulates this theological principle in his exploration of Jesus’ approach to resisting the empire:

Jesus knew only too well that one policy every empire utilizes is to “divide and conquer.” He was referring to just such an imperial strategy when he said, “Every kingdom divided against itself becomes a desert, and house falls on house” (Lk 11:17). The unity of his people [i.e., those in the Kingdom of God] was thus something that concerned him. The fact that he called twelve disciples—to resemble twelve tribes of Israel—was a clear indication that his mission was to restore the people and underline their unity. A look at the Twelve reveals them as a people of diverse ideologies: a zealot, Simon (Mt 10:4), and a tax collector Matthew (Mt 9:9); people who otherwise would not necessarily be grouped together. Among the Twelve were people from different regions of Palestine: Galilee, Iscariot, and Judea. Restoring a sense of community across ideological differences and geographical barriers is crucial for any community living under occupation. Occupied people often start to fight among themselves concerning the best way to resist the empire and consequently end up fighting one another instead of fighting the empire. As well, when people are confined by empires within small geographical areas, they begin to develop sub-identities, thus losing the sense of a communal identity. This is why Jesus invested his time in creating an inclusive community.

We risk missing out on crucial insight that women’s theological perspectives can bring when we pit men and women against each other. This gender conflict mentality runs deeply in patriarchal social patterns. What we continue to see over and over again is that the insistence on preserving hierarchical pyramids of power – based on gender, race, ethnicity, etc. – ultimately results in people being abused and oppressed. Even when that is not the desire of those who hold to theologies that support hierarchy. Yet abuse is given room to fester when leadership becomes closed to valuing the insights of those who have suffered under it, like the perspectives of the women in my research.

I am convinced that to foster Arab evangelicalism’s witness to the good news of Jesus through its participation in the transformation of Arab societies requires the radical inclusion of women’s theological perspectives alongside men’s.

There were several other threads that my research generated. If you are still interested at this point, and can stomach a more academic discussion, click on the following link to read the peer-reviewed article “Practical theology in Arab evangelical perspective: considering a particular practice of theological reflection.”


Caleb Hutcherson is Assistant Professor of Historical and Theological Studies at ABTS. He has lived in Beirut since 2008, partnering with Lebanese Baptists in various social and humanitarian projects.

Leave a Reply